A one-paragraph bill by U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, recently passed the House Committee on Natural Resources. It would permit local land managers who oversee federal wilderness areas to allow bicycles, wheelchairs, adaptive cycles, game carts and strollers on certain trails where it would be safe for all trail enthusiasts.
The operative word here is “restore,” as, from its enactment in 1964 until 1977, and from 1981 to 1984, federal agencies permitted all of the above human-powered forms of travel in wilderness.
You cannot expect the mountain biking community, comprising thousands of Californians, to support wilderness when their human-powered, low-impact mode of travel is prohibited.
McClintock has a track record of defending the public’s access to public lands, and his support of H.R. 1349 will make the support and protection of future wilderness designations even stronger by giving an important human-powered user group an equal seat at the wilderness table.
Opponents of the bill cater to groundless fears.
They contend H.R. 1349 will strip and undermine the Wilderness Act, opening all of wilderness to bicycles. This is inaccurate. H.R. 1349 reverses a total bicycle ban the U.S. Forest Service imposed in 1984, replacing it with more reasonable case-by-case access and nothing more.
Opponents to H.R. 1349 also claim bicycles have always been banned from wilderness, but the record contradicts them. Congress has never voted to ban bicycles from federal wilderness.
The ban was put in place by unelected Forest Service officials worried about bicycles on trails when the activity was new, with unknown effects. Urged on by certain environmental traditionalists, the officials interpreted the Act’s prohibition of “mechanical transport” to include bicycles.
This action went against a congressional mandate of four years earlier. Congress stated in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Act of 1980 that bicycles are a form of “primitive recreation” compatible with wilderness, alongside hiking and horse riding.
One of the original framers of the Wilderness Act of 1964, U.S. Sen. Frank Church, showed concern over the Forest Service’s defiance. In the 1977 publication, “Wilderness in a Balanced Land Use Framework,” Church wrote: “The Forest Service with its purist doctrine is trying to scuttle the Wilderness Act. Such policies are misguided. If Congress had intended that wilderness be administered in so stringent a manner, we would never have written the law as we did.”
But instead of debating the past, let’s look to the future. Youth mountain biking is popular. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 22 percent of youths aged 6-24 bicycle, while only 15 percent hike. The demographic of future land stewards is changing, and H.R. 1349 would broaden the base of those who value wilderness.
It’s unrealistic to expect younger people to support a land designation when their preferred method of human-powered travel is banned on the basis of outdated rules imposed by their grandparents’ generation.
In an age in which public lands are being eyed for increased extractive uses, wilderness needs more advocates. The mountain bike community has proven to be an enormous volunteer labor asset to land managers across the West, helping keep historic trails open for fellow users such as hikers and equestrians.
You cannot expect the mountain biking community, comprising thousands of Californians, to support wilderness when their human-powered, low-impact mode of travel is prohibited. H.R. 1349 will give mountain bikers an equal seat at the table, and engage the next generation, strengthening the voice of wilderness.
Kurt Gensheimer is a published writer in the outdoor industry, a trails advocate and supporter of all human-powered modes of backcountry travel. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.